My tents

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My current tents in use, left to right: Hilleberg Nallo 3GT, Vango Banshee 300 & Vango Tigris 400

My first tent was inherited from my Dad who, together with a collection of lightweight camping equipment purchased it in 1939, had a planned to go cycle touring in Europe.  Timing is everything in life and unfortunately shortly thereafter WWII put a stop to that plan, however, about 27-years later I was to become the new owner of his camping gear which I then used often until about 1972.  As it was originally intended for cycle touring the tent had one important feature – it was lightweight – which in 1939 meant proofed cotton.  The bell tent style was a single skin, with a central two-piece bamboo pole and no groundsheet but in 1939 was nevertheless considered state-of-the-art.  I never used it for cycle touring myself but I hitchhiked all over the UK and Europe with it in the late 1960s and early 1970s and had a lot of fun.

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In about 1974 I purchased my own tent, the now famous Vango Force-10 (above) which is still popular today and at that time was being made in Scotland where I was living.  It was initially used for climbing and walking trips and thereafter during motoring holidays around the UK and Europe.  It was and is still regarded as an outstanding 2-person ridge tent, which has an inner and outer tent made of proofed cotton and a plastic groundsheet. Used on many challenging occasions I can testify to its robust nature but it was really still too bulky to be used for cycle touring.  I still have this tent but have not used it for many years and doubt that I ever will again but I just can’t bear to part with it as it holds many happy memories – maybe good for the garden and grandchildren one day?

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In the following decade and by now a father of two children, we owned and used a very large 5-person French frame tent for family holidays.  Made of treated heavy cotton supported by aluminium poles, this tent was very heavy and awkward to transport even by car, to say nothing of being cumbersome and difficult to erect.  In recent years we used it for camping based cycle holidays in France, during which it still proved its worth in some substantial thunderstorms.  However, recognising that it had become too much hard work and was unlikely to be used again, it was finally sold it on eBay in 2015 – I’m pleased to say that it was bought by a young family for their holidays.

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Like so much of modern life, changes in camping equipment have been driven by increased wealth, leisure time and perhaps most of all, new materials and design.  And so in 2008 the aforementioned frame tent was replaced by another Vango, this time a 4-berth Tigris 400 tunnel tent made of ultra-lightweight synthetic materials; the tent fabric itself is very thin but is exceptionally strong, watertight and light.  Likewise the tent poles are made of fibreglass, which though long are light and strong.  Notwithstanding, this tent is still much too large and heavy for cycle touring but we have often used it like the frame tent for longer stay, camping-based cycle trips during which it has also fared well in some large storms.

Despite all the aforementioned camping and cycling trips, it was only in 2010 that I eventually purchased my first tent specifically for cycle touring – a Vango of course!  The Banshee 300 is described as a compact entry level tent, which though factually correct in my opinion does not do it justice.  Using modern, lightweight materials the design of this 3-person tent is clever and was quite an eye opener for me.  It has since been the foundation of most of my cycle camping trips until recently and has always performed very well.

Weighing in at just 2.75kg I have found it to be an ideal one-man and pretty good 2-person tent for cycle touring; though probably a bit too cosy for three + luggage.  Panniers and helmets can be stowed in the front space between the outer and inner tent, using a zipped flap to access the otherwise dead space.  Clothes and sleeping gear are of course kept dry in the inner tent and I store a Trangia and related cooking and drinking bits and pieces along one side, where a useful space has been cleverly created between the inner and outer tents. Being small space is inevitably limited in the Banshee 300 but it is still comfortable, though good organisation is essential to make the best of the situation.  The main drawback of this small tent is its 107cm height but you get used to it.  It is easy and quick to erect, stands up well to the worst of wet and windy weather, whilst drying out rapidly thereafter.  Currently retailing at about £120 it’s an outstanding cycle touring tent for the money but when I purchased it in a winter sale for £50 it was a steal!

img_2444-mediumOver more than five years I have successfully used the Vango Banshee 300 in the UK and Europe for cycle touring and still love it but looking for a bit more room and storage space I recently purchased what is considered by many to be the Rolls Royce of lightweight tents – The Hilleberg Nallo 3GT.  This ultra-light tunnel tent provides more than twice the floor space of the Banshee but, depending on configuration, only weighs between 2.60kg and 3.10kg. The inner sleeping tent is about the same size as the Banshee but then there’s an enormous inner lobby in which to store luggage and if necessary shelter from bad weather in comfort; I have seen solo cycle tourists store their bike in the lobby overnight.

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Because of knee problems I have not been able to use the Hilleberg for touring yet but last year we used it a few times as a camping base for walking and cycling trips and found it to be excellent.  There is one slight disappointment in that it can be very prone to condensation but by experimenting with the numerous weatherproof vent-flaps this can be controlled.  At 105cm it is no higher than the Banshee but because of the tunnel design there’s more of it in which to move around.  Made in Sweden the attention to detail and quality is excellent but it comes at a price – more than 8-times that of the Banshee!

Fortunately my wife and I still both enjoy camping and I have little doubt that our present collection will last us out.  I particularly find the combination of a tent and cycling to be an exciting experience, being totally self-contained and independent.  I have been fortunate to travel the world, stay in some of the best hotels and eat at some of the best restaurants but for me cycle-camping beats them all; arriving under you own steam, pitch on your chosen space – if you’re lucky with a good view – knock-up some food and then drift off to sleep in the best bed there is!

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Independence: transport, accommodation, bed, clothing & food!

 

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Round-Up 2016

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2016 marked the second year of Round The Bend, which is a personal record of my life on a bike.  In addition to the general commentary on cycling and various rides, this year I started two regular features in Round The Bend which ran throughout the period.  Seasonal Cycling was intended to encapsulate all that each of the four seasons and Christmas means for the cyclist.  Apart from just thinking about cycling at these times of the year, I made a point of undertaking specific rides each season during which I focused more on what exactly I was observing, hearing and feeling.

It was an interesting exercise, which made me think more about the actual experience of cycling itself as the seasons came and went.  With this in mind and after reading the excellent Need For the Bike by Paul Fournel, it led me to start Life on a bike (LOAB), which I now hope to make an ongoing occasional but ongoing feature.  Already used as this blog’s strapline, each piece is short and intended to encapsulate both the minutiae and spirit of what contributes towards a life of cycling, which for me has been about 60-years and counting – just.

It has been a real surprise and pleasure to see an unsolicited interest grow for this blog.  In 2016 there were more than 6,000 visits and  13,000 page views from 670 locations across the world.  You are all very welcome and I would be pleased to hear from anyone who would like to get in touch with queries, comments or just to say hello – contact details are in the Contact section which can be found in the About menu.

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Location of Round The Bend visitors in 2016

I am happy to say that my cycling in 2016 was better than in 2015 but as I continued to recover from a knee replacement, riding has still been something of a challenge and certainly not what it was prior to the operation.  Thankfully it was an outstanding year for British racing cyclists who excelled in the Rio Olympics by winning 12 medals, including six golds and more than twice that of the next country.  Elsewhere the Brits won no less than seven stages of the Tour de France, including four by Mark Cavendish taking him to a total of 30 in all, second only to the all-time stage winner Eddy Merckx with 34 wins – amazing!  Best of all, not forgetting Chris Froome who won the overall race for the third time, just four years since the race was won for the first time by a Brit in the form of the inimitable Wiggo – even more amazing!

For me the year started as it ended in 2015, cycling round in circles on flat local roads on the folding Joey bike so as to test my knee and gradually build-up strength and mileage.  Ironically the left, operated knee was doing quite well by now but an issue that had become evident early in 2015 had now come back again – pain in the right knee; this is not an uncommon problem as after one knee fails, soon after the other one goes!

Notwithstanding, I finally got back on my Audax bike at the beginning of March.  I really like the Joey but being back on a ‘normal’ bike after a year’s absence helped rejuvenate my cycling further.  Thereafter, I built-up mileage week-by-week taking care not to overdo it and still tended to limit most of my rides to about 20-miles.

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My regular stopping point on Eden Brook Bridge near Haxted Mill. There were times since my operation in April 2015 I thought I would not make this destination but I did in August! .

My goal for the year was to complete a favourite 30-mile circular ride to Haxted Mill to the east of my home, which I eventually achieved on 16th August.  Pleasing though it was, the discomfort after the ride was worrying and since then I have been struggling.  I am now reluctantly thinking that I am unlikely to return to long distance cycling ever again and as a result have been thinking about electric bikes as an alternative.

Apart from the usual online research, I have test ridden a few electric bikes this year with mixed impressions.  I certainly enjoyed the benefit gained from electric assistance i.e. not powered, but overall found the overall build quality of the bikes to be generally quite poor when compared to the standard road bikes I currently ride.  However, almost without exception the real killer issue was the battery range; they’re OK for going to the shops or a short commute but touring or day rides, I’m not so sure?  I have also considered converting my Trek 830 MTB with an electric hub motor, which would then provide a better underlying bike but still the battery range is an issue.  I intend to continue to looking in 2017 and may yet go electric!electric-bike-logo

It has been a big disappointment that at no stage in 2016 was I able to consider restarting cycle touring and I am currently not sure I ever will – even if I can do the miles again, the load carried is likely to be prohibitive.  Thankfully there is an alternative and by taking the bikes by car in July we were able to enjoy an excellent cycle-camping holiday on the mostly flat, French roads at Baie de Somme and subsequently at my favourite old stomping ground along and around the Avenue Vert, south of Dieppe.  By adopting a fixed camping base for a few days each time, it was possible to put together a series of circular routes radiating in various directions.  For the moment I expect this is the best I can hope for in 2017, which under the circumstances could still be a reasonable alternative to a full cycle-camping touring trip.

As previously described, I tried to gradually expand mileage through the year and thereby get back to as many of my longer local routes as possible.  Unfortunately since May there has been one other major obstacle that has more or less made most of my favourite nearby countryside rides largely impractical.  Winter floods in 2013 almost destroyed the old Flanchford Road Bridge across the River Mole on the way to Leigh and this year major works commenced to replace it, completely closing the road until February 2017.  This road had been the start and finish of probably 75% of my rides in the past and as a result of this closure the choice of cycle routes was very limited through most of this year.

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Look behind you! Cycling the Hermit Road at the Grand Canyon USA, April 2016.

Before my operation annual cycling was typically over 3,000 miles.  In 2015 I managed 1,100 miles, of which some 50% were post knee operation. The year just finished I have cycled just over 1,600 miles – excluding some turbo trainer ‘rides’ of about 150 miles.  On reflection I suppose this isn’t too bad and on occasion I have enjoyed some very nice rides; I did after all cycle along the south rim of the Grand Canyon in April too!  Nonetheless, I am disappointed not to have made more progress this year and am not really sure what cycling prospects next year holds but feel there will continue to be plenty to write about here on Round The Bend in 2017.

 

 

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Seasonal Cycling: Christmas

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I have already written about cycling and the four seasons of the year but there’s one more that brings the year to an end and starts the next – that is Christmas & New Year.  Unless you are a commuter, racing cyclist or a very, very dedicated cyclist, most of us will have reduced mileage significantly by today, the winter solstice on December 21st.  If you are lucky enough to have daylight, perhaps even some sunshine, it will be noticeable that shadows are at their longest as the sun is at its lowest point in the sky for the year.  As a result cycling into the sun can be difficult or even dangerous as sight may be seriously impaired at such times.

Deciduous trees are now bare, the roads probably wet and muddy and wildlife will be hard to find and, as a result, the countryside takes on a quiet and still ambience.  Notwithstanding, if you’re lucky cold, crisp, dry and sunny days can occur over the Christmas season, making for an enjoyable cycling experience and a pleasant, even necessary relief from eating + drinking + TV!

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Cycling can be something of a relief or even necessity after this

Living at the higher northern latitudes it’s almost certainly going to be cold and warm clothing is essential, especially for the hands, feet and head, where heat loss is at its greatest.  Precipitation at this time of the year is also likely to be a factor and may be in the form of either rain or snow.  The problem after all the Christmas food and drink is you just need to get out on the road whatever the conditions and then perhaps one thing can often leads to another.  I’ve personally had a couple of bad falls from my bike in the snow and ice just after Christmas as a result of misplaced enthusiasm.  The main roads might be OK but if it’s snowy or icy the side-roads can still be treacherous and should only be attempted with suitable equipment, such as studded tyres.

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Conditions can be challenging at Christmas – if it looks like this best stay at home.

If you’re lucky Santa might bring you something for cycling on the 25th December.  If you’re very young it might be your first bike and you will want to try it out, if you’re older and it’s a carbon fibre racing bike the same probably applies.  All-in-all it’s a happy time to enjoy with friends and relations, whilst in the quiet moments considering cycling achievements of the previous twelve months and ideas for the year ahead that will soon begin.

On January 1st New Year’s resolutions might involve cycling and various related undertakings. But most of all, it holds the promise of 365-days or four annual seasons of cycling,  adventures and enjoyment on two wheels – or three for those that ride trikes!

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Happy Christmas & Best Wishes for the New Year

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Life on a bike-6: B17

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

An intriguing statistic of the 2012 London Olympics was that GB topped the medals table for “sitting” sports: rowing, canoeing, equestrian and cycling. Whilst the legs do most of the hard work in cycling, a comfortable seat is essential.  The saddle is the main point of contact with the bike and takes most of the rider’s weight.  A good functioning saddle is critical to all cycling, especially as the mileage increases; working well it’ll get little attention when being used but as related ailments develop during a ride or tour, the saddle will become the most important piece of equipment on the bike.

Apart from set-up such as height, fore & aft position and angle, qualities such as shape, size, material and cushioning will mainly determine comfort. Not all derrières are the same, apart from size, anatomical differences between men and women often require quite different saddle design for comfort.

Modern racing saddles are very narrow and mostly made of a combination of composites, modern fabrics and specialist alloys.  Day-to-day saddles may be made of similar materials but will probably be wider and more robust in nature. Underneath the saddle rails can also play an important role in both set-up and comfort.

My preferred saddle is a Brooks.  Made in England since 1866 and often considered the Rolls Royce of saddles, I inherited my first Brooks saddle from my father in the 1960’s and have continued to use them ever since.  Apart from their shape and craftsmanship, the Brooks saddle is almost always made of leather which is both comfortable and ‘breathes’.  Notoriously they require some wearing-in when new but after a few thousand miles they take the shape of the body and provide the ultimate in cycling comfort.

Most famous of the Brooks is the B17 model – I currently use a black, Champion Narrow version – the classical Brooks saddle favoured amongst many cycling aficionados the world over, especially when touring.

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Up The Downs

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The landscape and related scenery we see around us whilst cycling is primarily the result of geology and time, which amongst many features results in hills of various types.  The geology of the south east of England consists of a large, east-west trending anticline (regional arch-shaped fold), the centre of which has been eroded away to expose older sandstone and clay rock strata, collectively known as the Weald.  The remaining outer chalk edges of the anticline form the conspicuous range of hills called the North and South Downs.  These rocks dip gently outwards to the north and south respectively, which on their inward side marks the edge of the aforementioned Wealden basin in the form of a steep slope or scarp that also runs east to west (diagram below: From the Box Hill & Mole Valley Book of Geology by R C Selley, 2006).  Crossing this scarp by bike is hard work as it is the location of a number of climbs, many of which are infamous amongst cyclists.

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One such ride is Box Hill.  Situated on the North Downs near Dorking, the hill has increased in notoriety since featuring in the 2012 London Olympic Games men and women’s road races and still forms part of the annual Prudential London-Surrey 100 ride, as well as often the Tour of Britain bike race.  Ditchling Beacon is another similar hill. Located near Brighton on the South Downs, this climb was included in the Tour de France in 1994 and is part of the London to Brighton charity ride which takes place in June each year; I have participated in this ride a number of times and can testify to the hill’s difficulty, especially with 40,000 other cyclists in the way.

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Box Hill viewed from the Brockham Big Field, home of Dorking Rugby Club.

Less than 9-miles from my home, I have cycled up Box Hill and around the area many times and routinely view it from afar when cycling about the aforementioned Wealden area to the south.  The hill has long been an attraction for motorcyclists, who hang out at Ryka’s Café near the start of the climb by the A24.  However, since the 2012 Olympics it’s cyclists who have literally taken over the hill, presumably in order to emulate their cycle racing heroes.  At weekends the National Trust café at the top of the hill is completely full of cyclists, frequently posing with their carbon fibre +£3,000 road bikes and clad in Rapha lycra!  In truth the hill is well graded and is not a difficult climb but the aforementioned carbon fibre + Rapha brigade seems to see it as something of a challenge and rightly enjoy it nonetheless.

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The road gradually winds up the North Downs scarp to form the eponymous Zig Zag Road, which thus achieves a more benign gradient.  Following the Olympics the road surface is now very good but in order to restrain riders’ downhill speed, a number of rumble bumps have since been installed. Excluding the lower section from the A24, from top to bottom the Zig Zag ride is about 1.50 miles and ascends some 400 feet.

The climb starts just past Ryka’s café, where after turning right onto the Zig Zag Road, the road rises very gently along the bottom of a dry chalk valley before reaching the first hairpin bend.  Thereafter the road climbs more steeply as it traverses the chalk scarp of the North Downs before reaching a tight, right-handed hairpin bend, followed by another traverse this time to the south east and at a slightly lower incline than before.  On the upper slopes of this section distant views briefly emerge on the right, with Leith Hill to the west and the Weald in the distance to the south.  Towards the end of this stretch the view is obscured as the road enters woodland and meanders on for a short distance to the top and the National Trust café.  Continuing just beyond the café is located the main viewpoint, which provides the best wide-reaching views to the west, south and east as well as the River Mole Valley and town of Dorking immediately below.

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Panoramic view from the top of Box Hill

Thereafter, I have always found the ride along the top of Box Hill to Pebble Hill rather disappointing; it’s quite up and down terrain, a poor road surface, fairly busy and the view from the Downs is obscured by buildings and trees.  Notwithstanding, there are plenty of other good cycle routes that link up with this area, including the full Olympic circuit, which make Box Hill a worthy destination as part of a ride.  Just don’t expect Alpe d’Huez, this is not as some would have it – the Surrey Alps!

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Two Tunnels Ride

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In my experience the Europeans seem to excel at providing quality cycle paths and dedicated cycle routes.  Most noteworthy are those in the Low Countries, Germany and France; since discovering the Avenue Verte and other voies vertes in France, I just keep going back to enjoy what almost without exception are well planned, constructed and maintained paths and related facilities, resulting in safe and exceptionally enjoyable cycling.  Unfortunately the same cannot usually be said of the UK.

Despite the worthy efforts of Sustrans and a post 2012 London Olympics cycling resurgence, even where present such facilities are mostly poorly conceived, funded and maintained.  Some sections such as National Cycle Route-1 out of London along the Lee Valley, can only be described as a national disgrace – this being the number-1 UK cycle route out of central London.  But there are thankfully a few exceptions, one of which we rode shortly after its opening in June 2013 – the Two Tunnels Greenway located in and around the city of Bath.

Starting from the central Bath Spa railway station cycling clockwise, the route first heads east then south along the bank of the beautiful Kennet and Avon Canal.  The towpath consists of light gravel and in the dry is a good ride as far as the magnificent Dundas Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the River Avon and marks the junction with the now defunct Somerset Coal Canal.  It is a beautiful spot to stop, take a look at the aqueduct and have a drink, snack or light meal at the cafés and pubs located there.

Thereafter, the ride departs from the canal onto the attractive but hilly countryside roads around Monkton Combe, heading towards Midford before reaching the crux of the ride.  Turning north a new, beautifully surfaced path follows the former track-bed of the Somerset and Dorset railway.  Initially climbing and then shortly after crossing a hidden valley over a restored railway bridge, the path enters the first of the eponymous ‘two tunnels’.

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Built in 1874, Combe Down Tunnel is low and narrow for a railway but at just over 1-mile is the longest cycling tunnel in Britain and comfortably accommodates bikes heading in both directions on a well paved surface; nevertheless, I am intrigued to understand what type of trains once passed through this diminutive excavation.  With white LED lights about every 50 metres or so, the tunnel is well lit but there’s a surprise.  The tunnel is brick lined and along the side wall placed in recessed passing places at about 200 metre intervals, are blue lights which, as the cyclist passes by, set off a recorded passage of classical music – an audio-visual instillation called Passage by United Visual Artists.  Taken aback at first, the effect grew on me as I passed through.

After exiting for a brief period outside, the path enters the second, less noteworthy and shorter Devonshire Tunnel, which eventually emerges at its northern end into the southern outskirts of Bath.   Thereafter the cycle path weaves its way through the suburbs, before rapidly descending downhill into the valley of the River Avon.  At this point the ride joins the popular Bristol to Bath National Cycle Route 4 that runs along the north side of the River Avon, directly into the centre city centre and back to the start point.

This circular ride is just 13-miles long but packed with variety and points of interest, as well as iconic locations and some beautiful scenery.  Bath & Somerset Council have produced a useful guide and map to the ride, though its always good to carry an OS map, in this case 1:50,000 Landranger map number 172 or 1:25,000 OS Explorer map number 155. We camped just on the western outskirts of the city at the Newton Mill Caravan & Camping site, which was also very nice and quiet but convenient for the centre; once a tricky shortcut is navigated to the aforementioned Bristol to Bath cycle path, it’s just 15 minutes to the railway station by bike.  All-in-all the Two Tunnels Greenway (as it’s officially known) is an easy ride which is a lot of fun and can be highly recommended.

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Life on a bike-5: Proficiency

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I started cycle touring as a ‘young’ teenager just over 50-years ago.  By then I had been cycling for about 8-years or so and already discovered the feeling of freedom just going out for local rides.  However, inspired by my dad’s pre-WWII cycling stories I wanted to go further afield.  Such exploits were to become a life-long experience for me that I am still enjoying but, not surprisingly, before setting out my parents insisted I demonstrate my cycling aptitude and road knowledge first.  Even at that time road traffic was starting to pose more difficult and sometimes dangerous cycling conditions that I needed to be aware and careful of, today the situation is immeasurably worse.

Faced with this requirement and eager to start touring, I needed no encouragement to begin cycle training before eventually taking my Cycling Proficiency Test.  I passed first time and felt both proud and excited at the opportunities this could now open up for me; I still have and treasure the badge I was awarded for passing.  Today’s equivalent scheme is called Bikeablity and in my opinion should be made compulsory for all children and adults who want to ride a bike on public roads.  It’s a small price to pay to learn what I consider to be an essential life skill, which ultimately benefits the individual and society forever.

I shall always be grateful that my parents insisted I prepared for and took the Cycling Proficiency Test.  I was even more surprised that they were then as good as their word and allowed me to take-off on long-distance cycling trips around England, which had a positive influence not just on my life as a cyclist but on me as a person and my future life.

To be continued………………………………

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